Miami-Dade County

Major flooding shuts down Zoo Miami again; moats compromised, some animals at risk

The usually dry mote around the elephant exhibit is full of water as Zoo Miami closes on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, to cope with major flooding.
The usually dry mote around the elephant exhibit is full of water as Zoo Miami closes on Monday, Dec. 7, 2015, to cope with major flooding. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

One of South Florida’s biggest attractions has been shut down four days after heavy rain left several of Zoo Miami’s main exhibits underwater and lion moats compromised.

Although some of the floodwaters are receding, the zoo will remained closed on Tuesday. If that trend continues without another significant rainfall, the zoo will reopen Wednesday, said communication director Ron Magill.

"There are still areas that are not passable for the public and the moats are still at a level that we are not comfortable putting animals out on exhibit," Magill said Tuesday morning.

The attraction has been closed since 11 a.m. Saturday when the pathways and walkways to major exhibits became inundated with water.

“I have never, in my 36 years here, seen anything like this in December,” Magill said. “The rain just won’t give up.”

The zoo, which sits on 700 acres off Southwest 152nd Street and 124th Avenue in Southwest Miami-Dade, is home to more than 3,000 animals. Most are safe from the flooding because holding areas away from exhibits are elevated.

But the human areas? That’s another story.

Magill said pathways and walkways to exhibits including Amazon and Beyond are completely underwater, making it unsafe for visitors, and even some animals. He said the water is so high that fish from a nearby lake are swimming under benches and near trees.

Animals, including the lions, are kept in areas separated by moats. When the water table is down, the barrier works, Magill said. But when the water level rises, a lion can potentially swim across the moat and climb the wall.

“With a high-water level, there is no longer a barrier,” he said. “In reality, most animals can swim.”

But he is concerned about the primates, including the chimpanzees, because they can’t swim. Their enclosure has a catch net in case of a fall, but the rainwater is a few feet above the net, making drowning a possibility.

“It is just a bad situation right now,” he said.

The shutdown has hurt the zoo financially during its peak season. Magill estimates the attraction has lost 6,000 to 10,000 visitors the past few days. The zoo was last closed for flooding 10 years ago during Hurricane Wilma.

Steven Ippoliti, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said the flood warning in Miami-Dade was called off. There are chances of showers overnight, but he expects them to be moderate.

Ippoliti said he expects the county to dry out by late Wednesday or Thursday. The chance of rain for Tuesday is 70 percent.

At nearby Miami Executive Airport, formally Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport, more than 13 inches of rain has fallen since Dec. 1, the wettest since the weather service began tracking there in 1998, said David Ross, another meteorologist with the weather service.

While the intense rain may not send the animals floating away, crops may not be as lucky. Intense rains have flooded fields, leaving produce in inches of standing water.

Sam Accursio, of Sam S. Accursio and Sons Farms, in Homestead, said in addition to causing rot and fungus, the water blocks oxygen in the soil, leaving plants with no air.

“They’re drowning,” he said.

Debbie Brady, executive director of Dade County Farm Bureau, said her staff is advocating for an emergency declaration. The bureau is hosting a meeting at 1 p.m. Thursday at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agriculture Science extension office — 18710 SW 288th St., Homestead — for growers to “bring their facts” and prove the flooding is catastrophic.

The heavy rain has also caused flooding in other communities. On Saturday, several streets in West Kendall were underwater, causing some cars to stall out, their drivers abandoning them along medians.

Homestead was forced to shut down several intersections. Police Maj. Scott Kennedy said the nonstop rain closed Southeast Eighth Street from South Homestead Boulevard to Southeast 18th Avenue, among other road closures.

Although the roads were reopened Monday, Kennedy said heavy rain may again detour traffic.

“The roads are already saturated,” he said. “The ground can’t take much more of this.”

Alex Harris contributed to this report.

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